CINEMA : An icon tested to the point of deconstruction

If you were watching the trailer with half your mind on something else, it would be easy to mistake Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power (15) for an uninteresting film. There's that title for a start. It has a nasty case of the John Grishams: seeming very macho and awe- inspiring (Men jousting! Testosterone overload imminent!) but actually saying something smaller and less meaningful than a stoat's capacity for remorse. Then there's the story.

Clint's lone-wolf jewel thief Luther Whitney is a pretty profound individual. We know this because we first encounter him in an art gallery, wearing a beret and painstakingly sketching a copy of an El Greco painting. Surprised in mid-heist at the house of a Washington powerbroker, Luther watches helplessly from behind a two-way mirror as a less savoury scene is played out before him. In the midst of an illicit seduction, Gene Hackman's drunken bully of a US president turns nasty with the young wife of his venerable political mentor. She is about to stab him in self- defence when she is killed by the president's bodyguards. Does Clint run for the hills and let a corrupt establishment get away with the ensuing cover-up, or does he risk his own life to do the decent thing and simultaneously effect a reconciliation with his estranged daughter?

So far, so obvious, you might think, but a healthy family of complications soon set up house inside that simplistic diagnosis. There is a strange quality about the early part of this film that is extremely compelling. The characters seem to unravel from the top down - Hackman loses control first of his hair, then of his desire for violence, Eastwood the reluctant voyeur lurks behind the mirror, his chin dropping ever nearer to his ankles. Directing yourself means there's no one there to say "For heaven's sake, shut your mouth when you're acting Clint, you look like a disgruntled iguana," but would any other film- maker have had the courage to let him look as bad as he needs to in this film? Even as he outruns two secret service men while carrying a heavy pack, the overwhelming message of Absolute Power is that Clint Eastwood is old.

It is the resulting sense of the fleeting nature of invincibility that makes this such a complex and intriguing piece of work. Just as in The Bridges of Madison County, Eastwood shows a vulnerability that is more magnetic than his old omnipotence. And while the sub-texts of the newer film at first seem fairly straightforward - Eastwood's own troubled relationships with various estranged offspring, the ex-Republican mayor of Carmel's hostility to a supposedly venal Democratic White House, and by implication his bitter regret about the national political career he could have had but didn't - that is not the end of the story.

There is a squeamishness in this film about the actual exercise of power which is as healthy as it is unexpected. Gene Hackman's pursuit of his tender prey is so gross that even the most repulsive studio executive might be shocked by it. And while William Goldman's screenplay gives Eastwood some nice one-liners ("It's dangerous outside,"Clint's daughter warns him; he half smiles back, "It always is") and a lovely scene with the perennially undervalued Ed Harris, the star's own myth is not immune to the pervasive sense of unease. The authentic tenderness of his scenes with his daughter even carries a hint of self- reproach for past misogynies. And if Bill Clinton has got as celebrated a cinematic crypto-fascist as Clint Eastwood making heart- felt pleas for democratic accountability, he must be doing something right.

Vondie Curtis Hall's Gridlock'd (18) is three films in one: a rare and quite courageous insight into the parlous state of the American public health-care system; an unusual and ultimately affecting buddy comedy; and an unintentionally hilarious backstage drama about a terrible jazz poetry trio trying to give up heroin. The virtues and vices of the film will probably be equally overshadowed by the participation of the rapper Tupac Shakur, whose sudden violent demise (shot dead on the way back from a boxing match towards the end of last year) gives an eerie frisson to his character's repeated assertion that his luck is running out.

The sad thing about Shakur's performance in Gridlock'd is that it has none of the fatalism that has characterised so many of his other film roles. While he had already shown himself to be a charismatic screen presence in films such as Juice and Above The Rim, Tupac's previous parts tended, rather depressingly, to be apologias for his nihilistic rap persona. Here, however, he plays against type to triumphant effect. His casting as the amiable, well-grounded Spoon - constantly clearing up after his reckless friend Stretch (Tim Roth) - might easily have been no more than a pat reversal of expectations, but after a shaky start, the partnership gets stronger as the film progresses.

One scene, where Roth tries manfully to wound him with a blunt knife so they can go to hospital together, would be worthy of Waiting For Godot if that were as good as English teachers always say it is. Tim Roth's backstreet Stan Laurel is a bit much at first, but the great thing about Roth is that over a full 90 minutes he does have the power to make you forget how hard he's trying. It's a shame no such option was open to Thandie Newton's Cookie, a character whose desperation to appear bohemian ("Did you read my new poem? ...Where's my veggie burger?") would bring a blush to the cheek of Christian Slater.

Dinner looms large in the week's two art-house releases. Big Night (12) is a beautifully made light salad of seven parts Il Postino to three parts Fawlty Towers. In a film co-directed by two actors (Campbell Singles Scott and Stanley Murder One Tucci) the story might easily be drowned out by the mighty clash of egos, but if there is anything indulgent about this finely wrought chamber piece (and there is), it is an excess of modesty. A European art film in American trousers, its best moments - the twirl of a dancer's skirt, flames licking the ears of a combusting chef - are good enough to make you wish there were more of them.

Primo and Secondo Pilaggi are Italian immigrants, struggling to make a culinary name for themselves on the New Jersey shoreline in the late 1950s. One is determined to stay true to the culinary fastidiousness of the motherland, the other has his eye on fast cars and a fast woman (a beauti- fully marinaded Isabella Rossellini) and will do what it takes to get them, even if that means serving risotto with spaghetti on the side. And, well, aside from a barnstorming performance by Ian Holm ("Bite your teeth into the ass of life!") as a rival restaurateur, that's about it. Where the tastiest food movies - Babette's Feast, say, or Tampopo - garnish their platter with a little something extra, this is all feast and no feist.

The poster for The Spitfire Grill (12) promises a film "to kindle the hearts of everyone who cherished Fried Green Tomatoes ... " Like "a new BBC TV drama from the makers of Rhodes", this is one of those marketing ruses whose value must be open to question. In fact, this debut feature from amusingly named writer-director Lee David Zlotoff is more open- ended than the rundown-cafe-brings-women-together-and-enables-them-to-express- them- selves-more-fully-to-the-irritation-of-their-unfeeling-menfolk template usually allows.

Alison Elliot's poetically inclined white trash refugee drifts out of jail and into the small Maine town of Giliad in search of a new start. There she wins over Ellen Burstyn's ornery cafe owner and Marcia Gay Harden's put-upon housewife by the judicious employment of such charming homespun phrases as "You can say that twice and mean it." Needless to say, this is too much for at least one of the local alpha males and everything goes horribly pear-shaped. But there is a lot of lovely scenery and the madman living in the woods has excellent hessian trousers.

Last and definitely least comes Turbulence (18), a surprisingly unpleasant piece of Hollywood hokum wherein heroic air-stewardess Lauren Holly - up to now (and on this evidence, forever) better known as the other name on Jim Carrey's prenuptial agreement - tries to land a 747 in a hurricane while fending off the unwanted attentions of Ray Liotta's escaped serial killer. About five minutes of this film, notably scenes where Holly ("She's not a stewardess ... she's a flight attendant") is talked out of the sky by a hilariously camp Ben Cross, are life-affirmingly stupid. The rest is heartily commended to the Westminster council sub-committee on film censorship.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 15. Kevin Jackson is away.

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